I am excited to introduce this interview with Daniel Ingram, author of the very well known book Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, he is also active and shares a lot of information over at the Dharma Overground as well as a personal blog, with older, free versions of his awesome book available. If this interview has piqued your interest then there are some real treats for you with lots of podcast appearances here.
If you would like to purchase Daniels updated book while also supporting us then please use this link.
SOFB: Welcome to the blog and thank you for taking part. Could we begin by introducing yourself and how you began this path from there we will move into more specifics.
Daniel: I am a retired emergency medicine physician in the US with a background in public health/infectious disease epidemiology, as well as extensive meditation retreat experience, mostly Theravada Buddhism (have done over a year on retreat in various bits and pieces), author of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (www.mctb.org), co-founder of www.firekasina.org, and magical practitioner since mid 1990’s, often augmented by intense Buddhist meditation practices and states. I got into this path through various childhood experiences, all explained in the last part of www.mctb.org.
SOFB: As this blog is coming from the perspective of Franz Bardons Hermetics I would like to discuss one of our early exercises. Called Vacancy of Mind we need to hold the mind free of thought for 5 minutes and eventually ideally 30 minutes. This is often the first obstacle for people as not many tools are given to get to his point, there are 3 preceding exercises 1) Observing the contents of the mind 2) Focusing on one train of thought and 3) Remaining Conscious during the day.
Now I believe the day is often the key in remaining aware, but after hearing your story and reading your book I saw that you decided to capture 100% of sensation from the sense gates and this became a turning point. So could you comment on firstly what you believe the requirements are to gain the still mind and secondly the significance of capturing every sense from the sense gates.
Daniel: Ok, the first point is one has to be very careful about what one means by “thought”, which, from a technical Buddhist point of view, contains lots of different types of sensations, such as:
- intentions (even the intention to direct or hold intention, and these occur before all actions, even thinking),
- mental impressions (which occur after all types of sensations as a very rapid mental echo that is what can then be remembered and processed by further thoughts, as well as contributing to the sense of the observer/controller),
- “binding sensations”, which are these very rapid, quick sensations that through a mix of memory, anticipation, recognition, familiarity, background framing sensations, and the like give a sense of continuity to experience,
- Subtle evaluative analysis and comprehension, that sense of recognizing and monitoring what is going on (which would be ironically required for most ordinary forms of noticing that one’s “thoughts” were reduced or absent)
- The complex interwoven sensations that make up parts of emotions, and, of course,
- The ordinary thought stream involves primarily a sort of linear verbal narrative and visual images that most people think of as “thinking”, which is probably what is meant here.
This is not even the complete list, but it gives one a sense of what one is up against if one truly wants to eliminate all forms of “thought”.
To dramatically reduce the volume of the linear thought stream is clearly difficult but doable with what Buddhists would call “jhanas” which can be taken to a vast range of depths and come in 4/8 basic flavors, see www.mctb.org Part III for more information on this. This is typically way easier on retreat for those doing high-dose practice, typically becoming more accessible after somewhere around 100 hours done over 8-11 days, that sort of dose. These skills, for many, fade rapidly when one goes off retreat, but, for those who are diligent and have the other requisite levels of mental and psychological stability, can at least give one a taste of what is possible.
To truly shut off all thought in the strict formal Buddhist sense requires attaining to either an extended Fruition with duration, something hard to do and requiring at least the first stage of awakening, or to attain to something vastly harder, that very rare attainment called Nirodha Samapatti, only attainable by highly awakened beings with access to the formless realms and again explained in detail in www.mctb.org. These are both high attainments and not likely what FB was talking about. If one is interested in practices that may lead to magical experiences and increased degrees of mental quiet and stillness, I recommend high-dose fire kasina practice, again with lots of free information found at www.firekasina.org. In particular, check out the Tower of Hallbar retreat from 2015.
SOFB: Do you feel that these states of stillness follow the same process due to the one constant that is us and our biology, or do you feel that specific methods from different traditions can possibly take you down differing side roads which though we may think we have reached x state we have not.
Daniel: The debates about how various traditions do or do not attain the same states and how many truly different roads there are is endless and will not likely be resolved until we have vastly better neuroimaging technology and a wide range of deep practitioners willing to be imaged by it. The mind is truly very complex, and the range of experiences that various practitioners can get into, even on, say, the same retreat with the same techniques and the same instructions, is vast. Also, misdiagnosis by one’s self and sometimes skilled teachers is common and par for the course. What one person vs another means by, say, “stillness”, or “rapture”, or “concentration”, can vary widely. It is a serious problem when trying to sort this out, typically requiring long, careful conversations and observing people over many days, weeks, or months to get a sense of how their practice unfolds and how they language their attainments and experiences. That said, I do think that the jhanas, properly understood in their still wide range of possible manifestations and forms, can provide a useful framework for understanding the possible degrees of mental stillness, stability, and concentration. Again, you can find a long set of descriptions of this topic in www.mctb.org for free.
SOFB: What is your opinion of things like Kechari mudra that seems to be a symptom of the rising of bliss which strangely starts to make the tongue naturally reach towards and eventually into the nasal passage? As the bliss is according to traditional thinking, the cause, whereas in Buddha's path through the jhannas this bliss may be a magnet into the next Jhanna?
Daniel: I personally haven’t done extended Kechari Mudra practice so should be careful here in speaking beyond my core areas of knowledge and experience. I personally can’t insert my tongue into my posterior nasopharynx. I have had had many powerfully blissful experience in meditation yet never had my tongue do that. Bliss in jhana in Buddhism is initially a draw to the lower jhanas, but then it also becomes something we may become dispassionate towards, leading to the higher jhanas, which are characterized first by subtle bliss, then by a superior neutrality which is better than bliss in the fourth jhana, and eventually by formless realms which are lacking in any obvious bodily feeling tone, as the perception of the body is gone by that point.
SOFB: From reading some of your other interviews I see that you have said that Vajrayana is a big part of what you do, though perhaps you are (most known?) for bringing clarity to the process of entering the Jhannas and helping people make sense of the journey. How significant do you see the Vajrayana and dzogchen teachings when compared to other vehicles of buddhism? Do they deserve their reputation of being skillful means?
Daniel: Vajrayana is a very complex topic with many aspects, practices, traditions, and attitudes. I have practiced with much more of a Vajrayana attitude than I have done some of the very specific practices, though I have definitely done a number, though I never had a formal Vajrayana guru, for example, which some would consider an essential component of the Vajrayana path, though I have received some Vajrayana empowerments from some qualified to give them. The skillfulness of the Vajrayana is a huge topic, and it is definitely one of the higher-stakes ways to play the game. It has deservedly earned a bad reputation recently due to scandal after scandal, abuse after abuse, so, if you go into the Vajrayana, realize that there is a lot of that around, and keep your wits about you. That said, there is some great tech in it as well and really good people and teachers also, so don’t throw the baby out with the narcissistic psychopaths, I mean bathwater. I particularly appreciate its emphasis on embracing and working with the full emotional range skillfully, as articulated in books such as Journey Without Goal, by Chögyam Trungpa, particularly the section on the Five Buddha Families, as a great example of what I mean.
Dzogchen is also a vast topic, but books such as Clarifying the Natural State, and related topics such as Sutta Mahamudra and Essence Mahamudra, are all very worthy of study. I routinely joke that Dzogchen and Mahamudra are remedial practices given to those who didn’t understand the profundity of Three Characteristics teachings of the Theravada, but that is not entirely fair, as they do add concepts and language that can help some people understand those topics more skillfully who didn’t understand them in some other presentation as well.
SOFB: You have provided very clear information in your book which has helped many start to have real experience with the Jhannas. So do you feel in this modern age that a teacher is a necessary part of the journey to enlightenment? Or is this something that if we have the correct information for practice that it is more a matter of just doing it and the results will come?
Daniel: I definitely know people who woke up without having any sort of a formal teacher, and the problem these days is the reverse of what I came up with, that being that there is so much good information around it is easy to get lost in it. Like simple practices and simple frameworks done really well, so that is my general advice. If you need a teacher to help you follow very simple instructions and do very simple things well, ok, well, such is your karma. It is definitely true that good teachers can sometimes see obvious imbalances that you somehow couldn’t see. If you are looking for a teacher, definitely seek someone that is low on exploitation and high on personal empowerment, asking you to see for yourself and do the experiment for yourself, to make the practice 95% about the practice itself showing you directly and maybe 5% about study and the words of any teacher. Most people simply don’t get the dose high enough and expect a teacher to compensate for that. It would be like only taking your medicine you were supposed to take every day once a week instead, and then asking the doctor who prescribed it to answer lots of questions about the medicine to you to make up for the difference in effectiveness.
SOFB: Similar to the previous questions, the fruit of Dzogchen is supposed to be the Jalu - Rainbow Body, of which there have been practitioners in recent years who seemingly shrank and the bodies did not follow the expected pattern at death. I am interested in your opinion of this phenomena as both an accomplished meditator and a medical doctor.
Daniel: I have seen lots of weird things in my life, but have no personal experience with the rainbow body. I know people who claim to have seen it. I am not sure what to make of this. I keep an open mind about things I don’t yet have experience with. Bigger question: how will the question of the rainbow body impact your practice here and now today? I have had no direct experience with it and no definite opinion on it and yet my practice has somehow been extremely powerful and satisfying despite this lack. Still, I can see how achieving it might inspire others who were very into rainbows to practice well.
SOFB: Following on from looking at these subjects from a modern scientific perspective. What have you learned from using EEG machines in practice? Can they reveal much about the process of enlightenment?
Daniel: The science of EEGs and enlightenment is still in its infancy. I am just starting to get preliminary analyses of some meditation runs I have done on and off retreat with my Cognionics Quick-20R dry EEG machine, and it is very interesting but too early to say much. Numerous attempts have been made to correlate EEG and meditation, and much of it is probably not great science. We will attempt to improve on this with study using EEG, MEG and fMRI at Harvard with data analysis by a neuroscience team at Oxford and the University of Utrecht. Until then, not much to say, as the results are not in. It is clearly a promising technology, particularly as its temporal resolution vastly exceeds fMRI, and should hopefully allow the precise micro-phenomenology for which the high end of the Theravada practice world is well-known to have some practical utility, but the jury is still out.
SOFB: You mention many models of practice in your book MTCB2 energetic, non dual etc. But I would like to ask about the actual process of ‘change’ from what we were to this enlightened state. Do you see it as a biological process rooted in the nervous system? Or is it something outside of the body?
Daniel: Clearly, there is some connection between the “brain” we perceive as being in our heads and aspects of consciousness, as anyone who has ever had or given someone else anesthesia knows. However, I personally maintain a strict ontological agnosticism regarding models of what is “truly going on” and only adopt ontological frames if there is some clear practical use case for them, as they help solve some practical problem, and even then hold them extremely lightly. Clearly, there is enough data to know that there appear to be differences between, say, advanced meditators and non-advanced meditators in terms of their ability to, for example, hold their PCC (posterior cingulate) either activated or deactivated as measured by an fMRI. I have taken part in these studies at Yale and U Mass and soon, coronavirus permitting, to take part in them at Brown University, and can tell you that it is possible to correlate certain focuses of attention to various brain structures. That said, this is all related to temporary states, and we have essentially no data on “enlightenment” in these contexts, so I can’t say more at this point. What is the practical use case?
SOFB: The 4 Elements are used as the foundation of everything we do in Franz Bardon's first book. I am interested to hear more about the Kasina practice with the elements, you have written extensively on the effects of the fire kasina but could you share a little about your experience with other elements also? You mentioned this briefly in one of your journals.
Daniel: Ok, yes. I can definitely tell you the following:
Doing fire kasina practice gave me an appreciation not only of the fire element but also of the other three (or really 5 if you count space and consciousness, as the Buddhists sometimes would).
It increased the sense not only of what they were at the ordinary level but also at the magical level, such as beginning to experience them as conscious entities, with their own sometimes interactive divinities, with their own realms that I have visited, with their own magical meanings. This was an organic process that is hard to explain, and it appears to have simply resulted from just doing very simple practices in high doses.
I get much more cold tolerant and sometimes unnaturally hot when I do fire kasina practices for long enough. For example, when I first went to the Tower of Hallbar retreat, in February in Scotland in a poorly-heated, damp, heavy stone defensive tower, when I first got there I was all bundled up in fleece and heavy socks, but, within about a week, I was talking around barefoot in a t-shirt and sweatpants and still feeling to hot.
Elemental balance is important, which can be as simple as taking baths when doing fire kasina, putting your hands in a cold stream, taking the air element as a focus of practice at times, walking on the earth, particularly barefoot, etc. This initially seems insane, yet, if you don’t do it, things can get rapidly out of hand when doing one element practice, and, if you do do it, things suddenly start to rebalance and work better, so, if you do elemental practice, keep this in mind. My best fire kasina retreat was actually at a largely deserted beach where I also spent time gazing out at space, sitting on the sand taking it as objects, and playing in the water and just watching the waves as object.
Reverence and prayers and the like to elemental deities are a good idea if you want to go deeper into the possible effects, but just remember what the elements are about and don’t expect them to be otherwise.
Questions from the community - I have not edited or changed these
SOFB: Does he believe the attainments required by the mastery of spirit exercises in step 1 i.e. mastery of thoughts, can only be achieved by long years dedicated to shamatha meditation? I.e. complete vacancy of mind for ten unbroken minutes.
Daniel: See above, as it is answered there. Still, one can get into some very powerful magical states and effects and still have some subtle aspects of thought operating.
SOFB: what methods of soul purification do you use to attain astral equilibrium so you can practice at a higher level?
Daniel: Wow. That’s a really complex topic. The first thing that comes to mind is that most people don’t practice basic morality training (sila in Pali) all that well, and so those habits then infect their formal meditation and magical practice. If you are angry a lot, having lots of guilt, regret, desire, etc. all day long, then these habits will naturally carry over into your other practices. So, if you want to have good meditation practice sessions, build good habits the rest of the day. Take care of business and yourself. Forgive whenever possible without being a doormat.
Have your daily To Do list taken care of, or at least made, before you start to practice, so that your mind isn’t burdened with those issues then. Don’t expect magical experiences and meditation to fix most of your real world problems, and be sure you have a real-world plan that you actively and realistically work to implement instead, as this will let the other parts of your mind rest assured that they can relax. It is typically the boring, painful, ordinary, tedious basics that people want to try to transcend through elaborate rituals and fancy concepts, but in this they often go astray. Do the boring, tedious, embarrassing, ordinary stuff that needs to be done. Have that painful conversation you have been needing to have. Make sure your room and work spaces are clean. Listen to those nagging feelings that tell you that you are on the wrong track or avoiding something and change direction instead of looking for some fancy magical solution to solve your problems. Be sure your real-world actions align with your higher ideals, as conflict therein is meditation poison. In short, get your ordinary shit together first.
I also do a lot of brahma vihara practices, and it is important to do all four of them. Check out Sharon Salzberg’s Loving-kindness, the Revolutionary Art of Happiness. I also like the book You Are A Badass, by Jen Sincero. If you chronically appear to sabotage your life, check out Scripts and Drivers in the book TA Today, by Vann Joines and Ian Stewart.
Daily exercise just helps all sorts of things. A clean diet is also highly recommended. My guess is that 70% of the major health problems could be prevented by people only putting skillful things in their mouths, and 70% of political and social ones by people skillfully regulating what comes out of their mouths.
SOFB: I want to know if he has any experience with vampiric and draconian entities and if so thoughts on their origins and shamanic techniques vs meditative in their confrontation.
Daniel: Yes, and that is a very long topic about which I do have reasonable experience, unfortunately. How to deal with toxic, dangerous, malignant entities is complex. There are many ways to work, many possible levels of response, and it very much depends on you and the nature of the entity and what it is doing. First, many such interactions are obviously caused by the person themselves to some degree, as they clearly invited them in and maybe even attempted some sort of deal or contract with them, so the simplest first move is to either not do this to the degree that you are able or at least take responsibility for your part of the tango. Next, don’t let the entity's bad karma and actions lead to you creating bad karma and actions whenever possible, meaning, whenever possible, respond skillfully and kindly rather than angry, vicious, etc. You could attempt some dialogue that expresses your wishes straightforwardly, such as to stop sucking your energy, for example, at least as a preliminary step, and presuming you had the time. The Buddha, for example, recommended strong boundaries and keeping good company but also options such as sending them loving-kindness and also teaching them the Dharma, in particular the Law of Karma, such that they might learn and change their evil ways. That said, creature all have their own nature, and their nature might just be the way it is, so don’t imagine this solution will always work. Basic dissolving of contracts as well as ordinary measures such as circles of protection and the like are obviously standard moves worth trying. If these fail, and kinder measures fail, then at this point I am comfortable with a realpolitik response, as we all have the right to defend ourselves when under attack. If at all possible, go with a Compassionate Exorcism style approach, which you can Google Search for lots of information on, but, if that doesn’t work, then tactics such as simply blasting them out of your space, formal old-school command and control-style banishing, and the like, are all reasonable approaches at that point. Any port in a storm. Afterwards, might have a good look at yourself and ponder what about you attracted that sort of interaction and what you can do about it to try to prevent it in the future. Friends might be able to help with this, as might a simple divination, etc.
SOFB: What methods can he teach to an astral magician who will not use prop's and con's in spirits evocation and the same want to create astral amulets, astral magic rings that will function more than those in use by the shaman ? Has he ever practiced astral magic in its full details ?
Daniel: I get the sense that this question is referencing some specific texts and systems that I am not that familiar with somewhere in its assumptions and background. I am also not sure what variety of shamanism they are referring to, as the topic and varieties are vast. Also, my guess is that there is a specific system of astral magic whose details they are thinking of, and so my answer is probably “No, likely haven’t practiced whatever system you are thinking of in its full details.” Some underlying background would probably help, as it is a very large, vague question that likely has some more specific, practical question behind it, I suspect.
SOFB: In Bardon's system we first observe our thoughts. Only when we reach the capacity to observe our thoughts for 10 minutes without any distractions nor identifying with them we are allowed to move to the next exercise that consists in maintaining one thought and further the vacancy of the mind.
For some people the first exercise tends to be more difficult than the second ( one though meditation).
In your opinion what's the best approach to reach the vacancy of the mid? Why not identifying with our thoughts can be more difficult than keeping attention into our breathing for example? What should be done first? Do you have any crutch/prop to recommend that may help us to reach these goals?
Ps: My apologies if I didn't make myself clear, English is not my first language, you can edit the question to make it more "understandable" if you want.
Daniel: One of the helpful tricks I have learned that is simple but effective is noting, specifically to just note “thinking” when noticing that one is thinking. It is obviously a thought, but, as many have noticed, it turns the power of thoughts into part of the solution, as, if one does this long enough, particularly with some other part of the practice involving attempting to focus on something, such as fire kasina (www.firekasina.org), then the mind will begin to simplify, settle down, and become much more workable.
SOFB: Knowing what's in IIH, I'd love to know what synergistic practices he sees for those who walk the path that could enhance development and performance through flow.
Daniel: That’s again a huge question and too vague to easily answer. However, I can say this: most magical practitioners are just not getting concentrated enough, and, for most, to get concentrated enough takes about 70-150 hours over a very short period of time, such as a week or 12 days or something like that, such as we do on fire kasina retreats, which is why we do them. My capabilities for immediate, immersive, palpable, hearable, seeable magic go vastly beyond my baseline capabilities when I have paid my entrance price and am powered up on retreat. If you haven’t seen what that is like, do yourself a favor and do a retreat like that, realizing that it is not entirely safe and heeding the warnings, and, if possible, having a group of sane, reasonable friends around with some “trip-sitting” skills, as those will serve you well.
SOFB: Massive thanks to Daniel for spending so much time answering these questions.